WELLES' LONG TAKE MISE EN CINE IN CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

A lot has been said about Orson Welles' long take in Touch of Evil (1958). It's the kind of take that has inspired and titillated generations of cinematographers, directors, critics and general cinephiles alike. For some directors the long take is a tool call the viewers attention to the stakes of a scene without breaking the tension through edits. Unfortunately for others, meeting the challenge of a cool and complicated long take takes precedence over effectively telling the story. 

In Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles revisited the long take in a much more simplistic manner than he did in Touch of Evil, but the effect remains incredibly effective because of his grasp of mise en scene. Instead of cutting Welles uses a stationary camera and moves the actors around to tell the emotional story.

The first shot establishes the space. It's low to the ground so as to get as much of the roof as possible into the frame. At first the roof isn't as important because the players are dancing near the center of the frame drawing our eye to their action.

Welles, playing Falstaff moves away from the gaiety taking residence at the back of the room. The camera pans slightly to the left following the two subjects in the foreground as they make their way to a bench, so as to more eloquently frame the picture. This blocking of Falstaff achieves a couple of tasks. It separates him from his more idiotic counterparts, showing that he doesn't feel like sharing in their revelry. It also creates a depth of space making the image more dynamic, actively engaging the audience to understand the image.

After some clowning from the two drunkards, they exit the scene and the camera follows them, panning to the right and again reframing Falstaff. 

Once they exit the scene to the right, the beams in the top right corner serve to lead our eyes all the way back to Falstaff in the bottom left.

Now we really get the weight of the beams and roof weight down on the small subject at the bottom left of the frame. He is weary and he is lonely, and you don't have to understand a bit of his dialogue to because he's telling it to you through the images themselves. Anyone with working eyes can feel what he's trying to convey here.

A character comes in and tells him he has news from the court. With his aspirations of nobility, news from the court draws him up from his low seat to the middle ground.

Notice how the placement of the messenger's head on the right mirrors the placement of the beams in in the previous image. In conjunction with the drunkards faces it forms a line of focus that echoes those wooden beam lines, moving the audiences eye from upper right to lower left on Falstaff.

When Falstaff learns that the King has died and his young protege has taken the throne, Falstaff rises with renewed vigor. Moving to the foreground the camera tilts up giving Falstaff a towering, empowered presence, no longer the small weakling he was earlier. The tilt itself simulates the viewer looking up at the now mighty figure.

Notice, again the two beams converging on his face. The one on the right now leads from the lower corner up to his face, top center. It's not until he exits to see the King that we get our first cut.

While the camera basically stayed in one position, utilizing only slight pans and tilts, the effectiveness of Welles' long take is immense. From one spot on the floor Welles is able to use blocking and design to make his character seem pathetically small or grandiose in stature., while expressing complex emotions and status. While it would have been possible to achieve these idea separately in individual shots, to put them altogether in one take Welles creates makes the total emotional journey one cohesive singular event. This may not be the solution for every scene, but for this one it was incredibly effective.

 

 

Brief Thoughts on Tangerine(Baker, 2015)

It wasn't until the end of Sean Baker's Tangerine that I realized how touching the film was. Following Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor's street-walking Sin-Dee and Alexandra around on Christmas Eve often times felt like a journey coasting on the curiosity of the unknown. There isn't a large market of films about transsexual characters shot on iPhones so it becomes easier to overlook the weaker aspects of the film for the sake of something with the appearance of fresh and new. The charisma of Taylor and Rodriguez is undeniable, but the acting varies as they try to look and sound "authentic" while trying to hit the bullet points needed for the plot. Mark Duplass, who approached Baker to make the film, delivers a similar style of dialogue along with the rest of the cast in the television show 'The League'. It usually involves revealing exposition in the form of questions that come in the midst of off-the-cuff sounding banter. Taylor and Rodriguez despite their strength of personality, don't have the skill needed to make the two sound fluid and natural, so it comes off sounding unnatural. The scene in which the two women meet and it's revealed Sin-Dee's boyfriend Chester has been cheating on her with a real woman, has a particularly stilted way of getting to what will become the driving force of the film's plot. 

 

The similarities between Tangerine and The League don't stop at the dialogue, they also extend to the overall plot structure. Episodes of The League often involve following two separate stories that unite in some cataclysmic blunder in the final act. For Tangerine this is the huge blow out at a the doughnut shop in which Taxi Driver Razmik is discovered by his mother-in-law trying to hook up with Sin-Dee. This kind of structure isn't isolated to just The League,  it's commonly found in many stories both dramatic and comedic. The challenging act of wrapping up these strands in one neat package can still be particularly impressive and satisfying for an audience member, even if it's not done very smoothly. But it's not in its execution of this formula that Tangerine achieves success, it's in the  aftermath. 

Having just found out her best friend slept with her boyfriend/pimp, Sin-Dee is attacked by some assholes with a cup of piss. It's a disgusting and demoralizing act, that caps off a film in which women are shown, often times humorously, making a living through demoralizing acts. Here they have no control and they can't make light of the situation and thus have lost the power of might and wit they used to control their situations throughout much of the film. The fun and games of the previous 90 minutes are over. Despite the central drama that has cracked their friendship Sin-Dee and Alexandra unite in a laundry mat, supporting each other because there is seemingly no one else who will. It's a terribly moving and honest moment that elevates the film into something special. Rodriguez and Taylor play the moment with a cocktail of sorrow and strength that only they could bring to the table. The familiar comedic formula was only the means to this end, in which we could really understand the hardships of being forced to the fringe of society. But these women aren't shown as pathetic in need of sympathy. Instead they're revealed to have the kind of resolve that most people who are lucky enough to be apart of the privileged class are too soft to develop.

INEVITABLE MADNESS

Cary Grant once said "Everyone wants to be like Cary Grant, even I want to be Cary Grant." separating the personal from the persona. Every day we get to see the persona of our favorite celebrities, many of them exhibiting crafted concepts for audiences to easily latch on to and support. The roles they take on are usually extensions of that persona and audiences seem to prefer that autonomy. The wacky Robin Williams played silly characters in his films. Even his dramatic performances required that his character be operating on a different wave length than the surrounding "normal" characters. In order to reach the extraordinary mind of Matt Damon's Will Hunting, an equally extraordinary character is required in Robin Williams' Sean Maguire. Once an actor achieves this type of celebrity they become locked into a sandbox of the spectator's choosing. Some performers are allowed more room than others. Daniel Day Lewis has lots of room to play - Channing Tatum, less so. Attempting to move outside of that sand box either results in critical acclaim or backlash, demanding that the performer fall back in line and continue to give the audience what they want. This happened to Jim Carey after he made The Number 23.

It's difficult to watch Jack Nicholson without thinking of him as a ticking time-bomb. At some point or another Jack will lose control and devour all the scenery around him in a spectacular fashion. In Five Easy Pieces he butts heads with a waitress who won't allow him to make any substitutions on his order. At first he appeals to logic describing how absurd such a rule is, but even this intellectual victory isn't enough for Jack. The fires burn too hot and he erupts in a spasm of anger, clearing the table of its plates in silverware before leaving. This freedom of expression becomes wish fulfillment for spectator, who recognizes their own anger at following the mundane rules and laws that dictate their daily lives. Jack Nicholson is the proxy through which the audience gets to experience their desire to let lose of all inhibitions. 

For Stephen King, this type of character is not what was needed for the role of Jack Torrance in the film adaptation of The Shining. The character he wrote was supposed to be the good person that ends up committing terrible acts. Jack Torrance was us, not the dream version of us. And perhaps King is correct in surmising that this deadens the effectiveness of the story. If we're expecting Jack to go crazy because Nicholson is playing him, the dramatic weight of his turn from light to dark is nonexistent. 

Instead the horror of The Shining comes from some kind of metatextual dramatic irony - we the audience know Jack Nicholson is playing Jack Torrance, but none of the other characters do. We know he'll do exactly what we expect of him because that's his job now as a celebrity. It's as though our very expectations and Jack Nicholson's obligation to fulfill them work in tandem to create the tragedy at the Overlook Hotel. 

Acting is about conveying truth to the audience. The performer must find honest motivation behind a characters actions, so the audience can understand how someone unlike themselves act. But what happens when the audience expectations dictates the artists' actions? Is the actor still an artist or a jukebox playing all the hits as requested by the paying customer? What happens when the artist creates a persona to separate the private life from the public, and the persona becomes larger than the art? It's with all this in mind that we present Inevitable Madness.

-Jae et Gail

Thoughts While Working On 'The Time of Your Life'

The first time I read William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life I wasn’t particularly impressed. Truthfully, I was only paying attention to the sections in which Tom shows up because I was auditioning for that part. So I knew that Tom was a innocent sweetheart, who falls in love with a prostitute named Kitty Duvall. For the bulk of the play he's trying to figure out how to make enough money to get her out of that life and into the one she's dreamed of. But the play is so much more than that story and it’s easy to miss the big picture when you’re focused on 1 character out of 27. (Is it that many? I read a review that said it was that 27 and we all know critics are rarely wrong.) It wasn’t until we all got together to read the play aloud that my perception of the play changed. Hearing the words come out of my fellow actors’ mouths, I was flooded with an overload of ideas that William Saroyan was presenting in the densely packed script. Every night since that one, I discover something new about the story we’re telling, and, two weeks into the run of the show, I find myself rather deep in the rabbit hole.

During a Q&A after one performance, someone asked the cast what the hell the show was about. It was the first question and there was a mighty beat of silence. At first I felt bad because I wanted the audience member to tell us what he thought the show was about. Maybe we didn’t give him enough to latch onto so he could sort it out on his own, but that wasn’t it. He wasn’t looking for answers, he wanted confirmation - to know if we saw what he saw. That’s the fun part of art because anyone can interpret it however they want, and then you get to compare responses and discover connections between other human beings that run a little deeper than the typically mundane associations we make with each other.

“Oh you’re an accountant, I have a brother who does that too, it’s like we know each other.”

“You’ve got kids, I’ve got kids too. Our lives are equally fulfilled or ruined depending on the quality of your offspring.”

“Look at that, we’re both Americans, we have a relationship now. No, I don’t want to know if you’re a Republican or a Democrat - let’s not fuck this up.”

Art evokes icky feelings that are weird and complicated that we don’t want to share for fear of being rejected. For example, when I look at Manet’s Le Suicidé I find this pleasurable warmth in the letting go of one’s life, contrasted by the unpleasant, contortions of a dead body - both of which mirror my own thoughts on the subject of killing myself. It sounds like a good idea sometimes, but then I don’t like the idea of being unable to control what I look like when people find me and I’m very vain that way.

 

You see what I mean? Who’d want to share those feelings? But if one person said “Yeah, I get that too”, then that particular form of relating to another person is beyond compare. Certainly better than the opening questions we softball to each other on first dates. “Soooooo, do you like air? Yeah. Breathing is pretty cool.”

So during this moment of silence after the audience member’s question, I felt myself trying to decide which topic I felt comfortable broaching, and how much of my own feelings I wanted to share.  Seventy-six years ago, William Saroyan wrote this play that challenged the American Dream in a fairly balanced way. He shows the good and the bad, and no matter how bad it gets - he tells us to go live. Keep living so that there will be no ugliness. Is that a good enough answer to these problems? Living in 2015, I feel considerably more cynical about America and the purpose of this country than ever in my life. And I imagine it’ll get much worse because I’m still young. I see police brutality today against the weak and the downtrodden just like In the play. I see people struggling for work to make enough to feed themselves, and people that are well-off who make themselves feel better by slumming it with the charity cases. Not much has changed in seventy-six years, so it’s hard to look back at the desires and dreams of a character like Kitty Duvall and feel hopeful. We’ve seen the future and we know what “Happily Ever After” looks like. It’s a lot like 1939 except you get a new iPhone every year to shut you up.

On September 18th, while I was about to perform this show, two boys, aged 14 and 15, were shot and killed in a drive-by on the 4400 block of South Greenwood - which is six blocks away from President Obama’s house. I think of these boys and so many other kids like them who die every week in the city that I love. I wonder how only six blocks separates the most powerful man in the country from the helpless victims of an overly-violent nation. With this on my mind I wonder how I can even get up on stage and make people laugh or try to give people hope in what can often feel like a very hopeless world. I do because Saroyan is right. We have to live. We have to get out of bed and find goodness in our humanity. And more importantly, we have to live because those boys don’t get to. Tyjuan Poindexter doesn’t get to go out with friends. Hadiya Pendleton doesn’t get to go to college. Kimythe Hubbard doesn’t get to “learn how to grow up, grow old.” We have to live life for the people who don’t have the luxury to do so, because wasting our life is a disrespect to all those who’ve had theirs taken from them.

Is the play about that? I don’t know. It’s about a lot of stuff, man. We could talk about capitalism vs. socialism, or the role violence plays in how characters solve their problems, or whether or not Kitty and Tom live happily ever after (my director Kathy Scambiatterra says they do - I have my reservations, but we’ve firmly established I can be a little dark). We could even discuss the negative and positive aspects of sex work or the myth of the Old West cowboy because all that’s in there too. But I guess the most important point this show makes is what it says about people - specifically people on the bottom. Somehow, against ridiculous odds, these characters - who in some cases are barely surviving- manage to find humor in this life and the will to keep living it. And they do it just like you and I do, despite everything on the news telling us we should behave differently. Because we have to. Because that’s all we’ve really got.

 

-Jae et Gail

CIFF 2014: A PERSONAL JOURNEY INTO MADNESS PART 1.

DAY 1: DAVID BOWIE IS WATCHING YOU

I’m walking down Chicago Avenue and I realize I keep fiddling with this press badge around my neck, making sure it’s facing out so people who might look will know that I’m some kind of press person and that I’m going to the Chicago International Film Festival. I do this even though I’m fully aware no one looks at each other much any more, but my excitement over getting a press badge for the first time in my life, with no understanding of what it even means has taken hold. On the press badge is a photo of me,  which is really my headshot for acting, which doesn’t look like me right now because I’ve been growing my hair and beard out for months for Macbeth, which starts rehearsals in February next year, so even if they did look they’d think I probably stole it off the clean-cut airbrushed guy. My recognition that wearing this badge and making sure its turned out is some kind of status play, while realizing it doesn’t really mean anything, makes me think of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. There is an idea of Jae Renfrow, press representing Sound on Sight, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me. Only an entity, something illusory. I am simply not there. Then I pass the Museum of Contemporary Art and realize there’s a massive image of David Bowie staring at me, with a sign that says “DAVID BOWIE IS WATCHING YOU” and I find it very comforting. I’m a big fan.

At the film festival I see the line is insanely long, but I get to skip to the front because of my fancy badge. I kind of didn’t want to use it to skip ahead of people because I’ve lost all my pretensions about having this thing and I’m feeling uncomfortable wearing this “press skin” anyway. I’m told that the first film I want to see, Words With Gods, is sold out but they’re forming a separate queue for rush tickets. The benefit of cutting in line was that I got to find this news out sooner rather than later. I’m told that I can use my little 10 Film Pass that I just purchased to cover the rush ticket, which makes sense to me because I’ve paid for it. When it looks like I’m going to get into the film, I’m told that it’s cash only and that even though I just paid to see ten movies in advance, this can’t count as one of them because it’s a rush ticket, you understand. I’m told this as though I’m an idiot who can’t comprehend the logistics of cinema commerce. I quickly find an ATM and pay more money to see a movie. I feel obligated to do so, since it was on my Top 5 list of most anticipated films and this is the only showing. I can’t just not watch it. A commitment was made from a writer to his readers and the 40 people who liked the post on Facebook, 38 of which I’ll never know who they were because I’m not on Facebook and two of which were my wife and her sister.

Once in the cinema I realize that this trip to the ATM was more costly than the 20 bucks plus $2.95 service fee for the box to translate the 1s and 0s into a little piece of paper with Andrew Jackson on it. All rush ticket holders were being placed in the first two rows and because of the money misunderstanding the second row was filled up which meant I was sitting up front. The last time I sat this close to a movie screen it was The Sixth Sense in my small podunk hometown in Kentucky and the screen was maybe a third as big, and I was still further away than the probably 7 I had here. Even by regular front row standards this felt just worse than normal.

This is the architecture of when business meets art, never mind comfort or experiencing the film proper, just stuff as many paying customers in as possible.

Guillermo Arriaga, the director of one of the short films and general overseer of the film, comes to the front and says a few words. He seemed warm and gentle, and said it’s time to talk about all those things they won’t let us talk about at the dinner table: sex, drugs, politics and religion. This film represents the first in hopefully a series that will cover all those topics, that are meant to spur respectful debate and hopefully understanding in a world of billions of very very different people. I want to stop him, since I’m so close sitting up front, and ask him if he would want to experience his movie this close to the screen. I feel like he’d understand. That he’s say, “No you’re right, movie theaters shouldn’t have seats this close and the only reason they do is so they can pack more people in for more money.” I want to say, “You wouldn’t view Seurat’s 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by sticking your nose up against the canvas.” And maybe we’d share a knowing laugh as he escorted me up to his seat in an act of kindness. But this isn’t what happened. He went on his way, and as the promo for the festival started to play I remained in my seat pressing my head as far back into the cushion as it could possibly go. As the film starts and things gets quiet I realize there’s a creaking sound coming above me. I look up and see one of the ceiling panels is broke and half missing and the sound is coming from a ventilation shaft, a metallic death rattle, that will play the whole length of the film.

For most of the movie I couldn't look directly at it. Unless the camera was still and the subject was still I watched it in my periphery or focused on the lower edges of the frame. An actor's stray finger would creep into the picture and then go away and I'd wonder if the other fingers were jealous that they didn't make it on screen or where even aware that they didn't. I felt bad for the other fingers. I also looked at my fellow movie goers in awe for their ability to watch unblinkingly and wondered if they're just used to it. Did they condition themselves by watching Transformers 4 like this? I also found I wasn’t alone; this one young lady next to me burrowed deeper and deeper into her seat trying to find the right position that would giver her maximum comfort given our situation. At one point she had found that sitting at an angle helped but it wasn’t until I shifted that she realized that her head was actually rested on my shoulder.

 I sat there challenging the film to make me forget how miserable it all was, and sometimes it succeeded, and I love it for that. You can read my review of it and the next movie I talk about here at Sound on Sight.

After the movie I retreated to the lobby and started reading a book, 'Little Star' by John Adjive Lindquist who wrote 'Let the Right One In', which played at the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival in the After Dark series, a segment of the festival devoted to thrillers and horror films for the late night crowd. I happened to be waiting to see The Midnight After which was also in the After Dark Series. Just before we were let into the theater, I read about a page in which a character was obsessing over performing David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' for his class. Bowie strikes again.

For The Midnight After I chose a seat almost as far back as possible in an effort to decompress. The film was absurd and entertaining and I'm looking forward to watching more Fruit Chan. The strangest part, which I didn't reveal in my Sound on Sight review because I'd have to relay ALL of what you read here in order to get it, came when the characters were deciphering some Morse code from a mysterious and creepy phone call. The large text printed slowly on the screen:

"HERE I AM
SITTING IN A TIN CAN
PLANET EARTH IS BLUE"

I can't make this up. There was no chance in my stifling my guffaws at the madness of it Then a character explained to the others what the words meant and proceeded to let loose a rendition of Bowie's 'Space Oddity', a song that became the anthem of the film. Maybe I am going crazy.

After the film I went home, it was late, and thanks to the Blue Line California stop being out of commission I walked a lot. During the walk I thought about how I wanted to write about all of this. This whole experience, the David Bowie stuff, the feeling of sitting so close to the screen, and my growing discomfort with being an officially official press person and not really knowing what the hell that even means. But I remembered that in an email my very cool editor Ricky, also a Bowie fan, made a point of saying no one cares about the details of your evening. Stick to the review of the movie, which I get, it's a site(a pretty good one, but maybe I'm biased) where people go to read about movies whether it's worth waiting in a Rush Ticket Line so they can pay 10 dollars cash to sit in the front row and be devoured by a film. Not a site where you read about the human beings that review movies. 

Hey, I wasn't fiddling with my press badge any more.

Thoughts on A Star is Born (Cukor, 1954)



Movies can both be enjoyable despite having a problematic message, A Star is Born being a great example. A tragic story of two lovers in Hollywood coping with success and failure carried by intensely personal performances by James Mason and Judy Garland. Judy Garland has a moment where she opens up to Charles Bickford's Oliver Niles about her relationship to alcoholic Norman Maine, and the mask of her character Esther Blodgett falls away, followed by the mask of Judy Garland the superstar, leaving us with a woman confronting her own faults and self-loathing. It becomes a difficult scene to watch as she tries to stifle her cries so people outside her dressing room can't hear her, but they bubble up in little choked whines - the door to that place down deep has been opened and we're witnessing her struggle to close it. Watching Garland and James Mason go back and forth in their symbiosis of self-pity and emotional support can get exhausting over the film's 3 hours, but you can't charge their relationship with being false. You see how they've become tangled up in each other's insecurities and selfishness - a toxic mix that can't end any other way than disastrous.

James Mason’s character seems unable to cope with not only being unemployed but that his wife is now the bread-winner for the family. His male pride is crushed when a postman refers to him as Mr. Vicki Lester, a moment that begins his push to even lower lows - like interrupting an Oscar telecast begging for a job. When he overhears Judy Garland tell Oliver Niles that she is willing to give up everything to save him, he neither accepts this selfless act nor does he become inspired to overcome his demons in order repay his wife for seemingly endless patience and caring. Instead he settles on a third option, rejecting her love by killing himself so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of getting clean - a scenario in which James Mason’s  Norman Maine can take center stage and overshadow his talented wife. Vicki Lester is told she must go on for Norman Maine, or else it’ll be like he never existed - that it is her duty to keep his immortal flame alight - a notion that sounds like the exact opposite of what he probably intended when he stepped into that ocean for the last time. In Vicki’s first public appearance since the funeral she introduces herself not as Vicki Lester but as Mrs. Norman Maine. Everyone applauds, dry eyes are nary to be seen, but the real tragedy is that she’ll never be free and that everything she is has been projected on to her by the men in her life. Her stage name given to her by the studio, her appearances dictated by what they believe is attractive, and now she serves the role they want her to - dutiful widow. Weep, but weep for Esther Blodgett - wherever she’s gone.

On Gravity: Transhumanism, Rebirth, & Louis C.K.

NOTE!
There's some "spoilers" here. So if you haven't seen Gravity and you absolutely do not want to know if they make it or not, don't read. 

It's all empowering and humbling at once. Through Alfonso Cuarón's lens we see the human body both as a giant structure eclipsing planets and stars, and as a delicate speck lost in the infinite dark of space. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain(2006), Gravity has a similar reverence for human life and everything that entails - happiness, pain, loss, banality, fear, love, etc. In Aronofsky’s underappreciated masterpiece, he is all inclusive when it comes to faiths and ideologies, giving equal footing to science and religion, as he shows man’s struggle with accepting his ultimate fate: death. Cuarón takes this same approach in Gravity, though instead of uniting characters through death, he unites them through the vitality of their humanity. The characters of Matt Kowalski(George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock) are American, but they rely on both the technology of the Russians and Chinese to survive. Dr. Stone only barely struggles to operate the different control panels, despite linguistic barriers the guts are all essentially the same. This story could have just as easily been about a person of any nationality, and the struggles and successes would have had synonymous meaning. When it comes to human bodies the guts are also all the same, as is the will to survive and stand victorious.

Gravity poses as a creation myth that unites science and religion. However this myth is not about the birth of the original man, but of a new postmodern man. Stone and Kowalski fly in the heavens, angels who make sure our satellites give us internet and GPS coordinates and images of possible locations for suspected terrorists. In order for Dr. Stone to return to earth, she must go through a process of rebirth, a transformation in which she let's go of her suffering - specifically the mourning of her daughter, who tragically passed while playing tag. Stone’s journey of reincarnation through release of suffering and her own religious beliefs of an afterlife and heaven combine both western and eastern religions. Under the jovial eyes of a smiling Buddha, she makes her fiery return to earth and is symbolically reborn in the water, mimicking the steps of evolution by swimming, crawling and then triumphantly walking on the land. Stone’s ascension to Earth is where she transcends her character of the grieving mother and scared doctor, and now becomes a symbol - an icon of humanity. The camera frames her in these first steps, perhaps the first steps she’s made the entire film, as a titan - made powerful by the knowledge of her own mortality and her spiritual strength that allowed her to persist against all odds..

However, this messy and at times violent rebirth, is not a pure product of her will power alone - Stone is aided in her journey by the technology around her. Machines give her the power to breath in space and eventually reenter the planet's atmosphere, but all of these contraptions seem more delicate than the human bodies they’re meant to protect. While their importance is noted, they ultimately seem trivial compared to the power of the human spirit. Metal structures are shredded throughout the film and their debris will eventually burn up in the mesosphere, while Stone and Kowalski pingpong off of walls and obstacles mostly unscathed. There are deaths of course, to remind us that human beings are still more than capable of dying. Gravity tries to balance its reverence for the body by both acknowledging the power of humanity and its fragility. We have the ingenuity to explore the cosmos but can just as easily die in ways both spectacular (space debris to the face) and banal (falling down while playing tag).

On first look, Gravity’s philosophy looks like an alternative to transhumanism, which deals with the merging of human biology with technology to enhance our limited capabilities. Ray Kurzweil, who wrote a fascinating book called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explains that, with some key scientific breakthroughs, we could use our brain to access the cloud, a universal cache of knowledge and human experience, and download the information we need as we need it by only thinking about it. Google Glass, a smartphone in the form of eye-wear, feels like another step towards this integration of cloud data and our mind. The dream is that these enhancements could push the boundaries of human capabilities, limited only by imagination. However, this possible amalgamation of human and technology seems unnecessary, when the majority of us only use the gadgets we have now for the mundane task of searching IMDB for that actor we saw in that thing that one time.

This use of valuable technology for triviality is brought up when the satellites are being destroyed, with Kowalsky quipping that a portion of America “just lost their Facebook.” The social network site is treated here with irreverence, but its importance in people’s day to day lives is also acknowledged. One wonders how many people would be more worried about Facebook being restored than the handful of people floating in space making sure their lives are comfortable. These platforms of communication are indeed helpful, one can look at the social network’s role in the Arab Spring as a reference, yet one can’t say that Twitter or Facebook are truly hitting their full potential on a consistent basis. Our technology, meant to push the limits of human power, instead serve as a distraction from our own problems. When asked what she does to unwind back home, Dr. Stone tells Kowalsky that she drives and listens to the radio - a ritual of escapism to avoid the pain of losing her child. For her, like many people in the world, our gadgets are used to avoid the difficulties of reality - to cloud our mind and keep us from necessary introspection. If this is what we use technology for now, how excited should we be about integrating it into our biology? Comedian Louis C.K. actually did a bit on Conan O’Brien’s talk show about how we use technology to avoid our deeper feelings, thus keeping us from truly experiencing sorrow and potentially real joy. His story of sitting in a car weeping, and eventually being filled with bliss actually mirrors Dr. Stone’s growth in Gravity. You can watch it here:



Cuarón doesn’t merely want to do away with our technology and gadgets, instead he values the it as a tool for survival: the suits provide safety from space, the stations provide air, the radios provide communication and at one point comfort. But when Stone finally crashes back in the water surrounded by lush green environment, she sheds her mechanical placenta to show us that technology is ultimately disposable. Rather than pushing for the transhumanist fusion of man and machine, Cuarón’s Gravity wants the body to stand alone - an existential marvel to be celebrated for its design, both perfect and imperfect. Whether this body was created by divine hand or evolution, with the aid of technology or not, is irrelevant. All that matters is that it exists and that it endures.



Thoughts on Gods of the Plague (Fassbinder, 1970)



In Gods of the Plague,  Fassbinder is aesthetically and structurally working from Godard's noir deconstructions(Band of Outsiders, Breathless) - a copy of a copy but still unique and personal, perhaps a mutation of a mutation would be more apt. The plot isn't particularly important and Fassbinder freely stops the the story dead in its tracks to wallow in melancholy. One break takes place when Franz listen's to a children's record, the rhymes are silly and meaningless, but there's a longing for the naivety of youth - when all you had to worry about was what sound the cows make. These deviations from plot and story accentuate a feeling of meaninglessness - that progression is useless and will only end in suffering or death, which in film noir is always the case.

Here the light draws attention to the door, in which someone will, of course, walk through momentarily.  By using the light in such an obvious way, Fassbinder is reminding you that this is a movie. It's a Brechtian technique to keep you engaged with the message of the story rather than using the film as an escapism.
Film noir lighting is generally high contrast to accentuate the inky black shadows, for Gods of the Plague the lighting is at times more extreme stark and overblown and with its own agenda. It encircles the characters, isolating them further within the frame and from each other. Like a prison spot light searching for escaped convicts, it leaves no place to hide, while also serving as an extension of the camera probing and violating the depths of the characters - what it reveals is the frustrated malaise of the oppressed. This theme of oppression is set up at the start - the first moment of the film is a close up of a sign to a penitentiary. We can hear a gate open and close before Franz walks into the frame, and the camera tracks him as he moves along the prison walls. We never saw Franz go into prison, and we never saw him actually come out. Moments later when asked what it was like on the inside, Franz responds "It's not much different than out here." This remark is the verbal punctuation to the visual statement made in the opening: if we didn't really see the inside of the prison or Franz's exit, then we're left with the feeling that Franz has really been set free and he confirms this feeling with his attitude and dialogue.

American noir from the 40's and 50's is seen as a existential conflict with post-war and post-Depression ideologies. Characters are trying to take a short cut to prosperity promised after sacrifices made abroad, knowing that the old fashioned way of working hard up the ladder is a pipe dream sold to suckers. However they know that their business is high risk and high reward, and this desperate drive in the face of mortality is the dark matter that holds the genre together. Taking this art form of American disenfranchisement and transplanting it in 1970 Germany means one has to take a moment to understand this new context from which the film is created. Based on the film alone, there is a clear ideological conflict in regards to capitalism and sexuality. Character's are open with their bodies and orientation. Franz has both female(Margarethe) and male(Gorilla) lovers, and they would rather do nothing else than just share each other all day, especially if the alternative is working. When Margarethe suggests she prostitute her body to support their lifestyle, Franz reacts violently. The motivation doesn't seem to come from misogyny but disgust at the idea that she would take her body, the only thing a person will always have direct power over, and pervert it with capitalist endeavors. This link between capitalism and sexuality is further defined by the smut peddler, who sells pornographic magazines. In the scene in which the following still is taken from, she sits at a table with Joanna and a corrupt cop, and tells them that her new black market merchandise has exciting "new positions" to stimulate. The shots of the magazine are graphic, depicting fellatio and vaginal intercourse, but the characters regard them with indifference. Selling sex strips it of its passion, making it a sterile transaction, while at the same time the ban on these materials perverts natural human act, not to be enjoyed. Intercourse rarely seems to bring any type of pleasure. Franz is undressed by his lover but his mind is elsewhere - the weight of the future is crushing him. 


For more context to aid in understanding this ideological conflict, one should read this highly informative thesis "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: A Comparative Study Between West Germany and the United States" by Patricia Sannie Lee. She explains that during the reconstruction the Allied forces utilized the Church to "...reestablish 'normality' and 'decency'". Under this mandate, Christian conservatism won out over Christian progressives, putting an emphasis, much like in the United States, on getting the woman back in the home to focus on being a mother, wife and cook, and restoring the familial unit. Sexual education disappeared or, at the very least, severely limited by parents for fear that instruction would be mistaken as promotion, and pre-marital sex and promiscuity were considered detrimental to the rebuilding process. By the 1960's the post-war generation was fed up. There was a sexual revolution, not only in Germany but across the globe, with women particularly taking more control over their bodies, and with a general acceptance of humanity's sexual nature. In addition to the war over the body, there was also the German student movement of 1968 which protested Western imperialism, and rallied behind socialist ideologies. This movement also called for a more introspective focus on Germany's fascist history, specifically during the Third Reich, which lead the country to be divided by the Allied powers. The recognition of the fascist "sins of the father" hadn't truly been dealt with up until that point - only ignored and repressed. Gods of the Plague is born of this national discontent and and is pessimistic about the struggle.

The commercialism of sex looms over the bedroom.

Who the "Gods of the Plague" are isn't exactly clear, at least not at first. The Greek god Apollo, who presided over truth, healing, poetry and music, among other thing, was also known as the god of the plague. Perhaps Fassbinder looks at the social revolution as a plague, not out of disagreement with the ideas, but because of the difficulty that comes with shouldering the responsibilities of healing a country and being more socially conscious. In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Apollo is the one who, via an Oracle, gives Orestes the order to avenge his father's murder by killing his mother and her lover. When Orestes is brought to trial by the Furies, Apollo defends him arguing that marriage is a sacred bond that needed to be preserved, and from this perspective the "gods" in question are perhaps the people who enforced the oppressive conservative values in the first place. Despite the sense of defeat and hopelessness in Fassbinder's characters, this doesn't mean that Gods of the Plague sees the fight against social oppression as a pointless struggle, it clearly recognizes this ideological battle as urgent and necessary - it just doesn't know what to do about it.

SHOT THROUGH THE HEART: SANSHIRO SUGATA

In this scene, Sanshiro Sugata, a feared judo-ka who earned his reputation after inadvertently killing his opponent, learns that the young woman he has been visiting, Sayo Murai, is the daughter of his next opponent. Their relationship began after Sanshiro admired her praying for her father.

The following two shots are Sanshiro realizing that Sayo's father is Hansuke Murai, his next opponent. Kurosawa shoots Sanshiro from below, but contrasts his literal higher status with his low feelings. This image itself is contrasted again with Sayo, who is shot at a position lower to Sanshiro, but her feelings are considerably more positive.




Kurosawa then re-frames the characters inside an archway. This creates a box that both characters are trapped in.



Sanshiro, uncomfortable and afraid, attempts to leave this "box" but despite moving further down the stairs is unable to escape it.


After a moment of contemplation, Sanshiro returns up the stairs and informs Sayo that he is the man her father will face at the judo match.


Their positions have not changed, but Kurosawa doesn't film them at as steep an angle as before. The camera seems more level to both. Sayo's joy turns to horror, and Sanshiro begins dealing with his responsibility as a fighter and as a human. They're complicated emotions that can't just be implied by obvious camera angles, Kurosawa lets the actors do the work instead.


We now cut back to a similar shot looking down the stairs, but this time the camera is placed in front of the door frame. Sanshiro is now "free" to move down the path. The camera is also placed in front of Sayo, perhaps it is her point of view, but this also keeps the two characters separated now that Sanshiro has revealed his identity.


This next shot shows Sayo caught in the middle of the stairs, unsure of to go up or down. Above her is the shrine where she prayed, and thus represents her father. Below, of course represents Sanshiro Sugata, the man she is attracted to but also the man who may seriously injure her father.



Kurosawa cuts again to a more distant shot, the stairs seem to extend even further from her on either side. This fully illustrates how lost and alone she feels at this moment.